Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of cat in cardboard box © Johanna Schroeder

This is not the litter box.
© Johanna Schroeder

February 2012

Creature Comforts

When cats do more than think outside the box

Johanna Schroeder

After smoothly writing my last Creature Comforts column, I found myself struggling with some serious writer's block. What should I focus on for this issue's column? After a series of unfortunate feline fiascoes recently at my house, the answer was obvious. What do you do when your cat chooses to pee outside the box?

A common problem with cats is urination in places other than their litter boxes. This "out of the box" behavior can be caused by several factors including an infection or other illness, improper litter training or bad behavior. If your cat is not sick, figure out what is causing the problem and, most importantly, treat the stained area immediately so the behavior does not continue.

If your feline is a kitten and not properly litter box trained, my vet suggested a simple solution: put it in an empty bathtub. Cats, like puppies, do not like to go to the bathroom where they sleep. Place a large pan of litter, food, water, a comfortable place for them to sleep and plenty of toys in the tub. Make sure every space is taken up with something. The cat will learn that the place to go potty is the place they don't sleep, eat or play. Since they are too small at that age to scale the bathtub wall, they can't escape and find other areas to potty. I have never tried this with an older cat, though.

An older cat is more likely to be peeing elsewhere due to a behavior issue. One element actually could be the litter box.

Ask yourself these questions:

Do you have enough litter boxes? I was told to have one litter box per cat.

Are you cleaning the litter box frequently enough? Humans don't want to go to the bathroom in a toilet that is never cleaned, neither does a cat.

Is the litter box located in an area the cat feels comfortable using? Yes – some felines are prone to experiencing stage fright, and will not use litter boxes they feel are too public or noisy.

Is the type of litter you are using upsetting your cat? Cats can have issues with scents and textures, just like people.

Another factor to consider is stress. Significant changes in your pet's life (such as a new pet or baby, a move, or even a sudden switch in food) can cause a great deal of stress for a cat. Slowly introducing new family members, or foods, can help ease the transition period for your cat. Obviously a cat's personality, like a person's, can vary. Be ready for several trials and errors before discovering what is causing the problem and what the solution may be.

After you are able to pinpoint the problem, you need to conquer the tricky odor of cat urine. Although a human nose may not be able to detect cat urine scent, a cat's keen nose can. If they smell an area that has been urinated on or "marked," they will continue to pee there, eventually causing serious damage.

For items that can be thrown in the washer, adding white vinegar with detergent can help get the scent out. The vinegar smell is not detectable after the items are laundered. Vinegar can also be used to treat other soiled areas without leaving stains. I suggest putting a solution of ¾ cup vinegar and ¼ cup water into some type of spray bottle to make application easier. There are also enzyme-killing solutions available, but may contain harsh chemical ingredients. If the problem persists, ask your vet for other possible solutions, because an untreated rug or piece of furniture will need to be disposed of if the urination continues.

Keeping your cat happy and healthy, and their litter box clean, is the best way to ensure that life's little feline fiascoes won't happen to you!

Johanna Schroeder works at the Department of Natural Resources in the Water Quality Bureau and shares a home with four kids and two cats, one of which is currently in the doghouse.